Many thanks to the gracious and talented aphra behn, who minded the Cave of the Moonbat last week while I caught up on a backlog of grading. aphra's American Women's History, 1820-1860 provided whole new layers of context and meaning to the ongoing discussion about 19th-century politics, and the comment threads were as enlightening as the diary itself - truly the mark of a great historiorantrix and an awesome community of Cave-dwellers. Thanks again! - U.M.)
Tonight - for our purposes, some evening sometime in the first half of the 1860s, somewhere in some field in the eastern United States - y'all's resident historioranter'd like to invitechee ta' join me, if ya' please, around this-here campfire - where, Lord providin', we can chew some `baccy and drink some chicory coffee while we clean our weapons in preparation for the `morrow's battle. Go ahead, pull up a log an' set a spell - it'll give us a chance to ask ourselves: How in the hell did it come to this?
The history of the period from the Age of Jackson to the Election of 1860 reads like a checklist of how to rip a country apart. Take a look:
Once-powerful parties destroyed by an inability to deal with the most divisive issues of the day? - check: Both the stodgy old Whig Party and the once-tsunami-like Democrats of the Jacksonian variety splintered and broke in the face of their efforts to find national solutions to increasingly sectional problems.
Weak and/or incompetent leaders? - check: There's a reason the 8 Presidents between Jackson and Lincoln served one term or less (besides the fact that two of them died in office). In different ways, and to differing degrees, they all displayed enough Bushian qualities to rival even our own contemporary Preznit in terms of suckiness. George's special claim to the title of Worst President Ever comes from the unique nature of his suckiness across a broad spectrum of issues, but Franklin Pierce was every bit the Decider's equal in terms of bungled expansionist ploys, Van Buren was just as capable of mismanaging an economy, and Buchanan displayed the same remarkable ability to remain aloof and isolated while his nation disintegrated around him.
Failed efforts at compromise? - check: The wizened statesmen of an earlier age had given way to a younger, more hotheaded breed of philosophical zealot. The great orator/compromisers played their swan song with the Compromise of 1850, and a country that had taken its cues from men like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun soon found itself saddled with leaders more akin to Mad Tom Tancredo or Ken "I Support Joe Lieberman!" Salazar. Uninspiring men, motivated by self-certainty to the complete exclusion of differing opinions, drew lines in the ideological sandbox, even as folks who'd moved west looking for a fight started shooting at each other
Principled Man of Action Martyred for a Righteous Cause/Domestic Terrorist Apprehended and Executed? - check: If Rush Limbaugh had been around at the time of John Brown's execution, he'd have been selling t-shirts with clever (to a 4th-grader) slogans mocking the doomed man - but then, Hugo Chavez, unable to resist clobbering people over the head with hyperbolic religious imagery, probably would've had something to say, too. The lines between national sections and opinionated sanctimonies were now as stark as the image of "God's Angry Man" swinging from a noose on a December day.
The stage was set for an epic election showdown in 1860. In the southern and border states, divided parties issued vain appeals to ideals of state's rights, even as their leaders made preparations to secede after the inevitable outcome. The North, meanwhile, prepared to lift its massive demographic middle finger in a generally southward direction.
Back Before Party Conventions Had Scripts...
The Democrats tried to name a candidate early in 1860, holding their nominating convention in Charleston in April. They were split badly along sectional lines, and the convention fell apart when 50 Southern "fire-eaters" walked out over a platform dispute. Without at least a few of those votes, the northern wing's man of choice, Steven A. Douglas, couldn't get the needed 2/3s majority he needed - even after 57 ballots - which left the entire assemblage at the mercy of its venomous minority of secessionists. Even Alexander H. Stevens, destined to become the Vice President of the Confederacy, was appalled at the writing he saw on the wall. In his memoirs, he wrote:
"The seceders intended from the beginning to rule or ruin; and when they find they cannot rule, they will then ruin. They have about enough power for the purpose; not much more; and I doubt not but they will use it. Envy, hate, jealousy, spite...will make devils of men. The secession movement was instigated by nothing but bad passions.
Kennedy, et al, The American Pageant, Houghton/Mifflin, NY, 2002. pg. 424
The next folks to field a candidate were a bunch of die-hard Whigs and former Know-Nothings who stuck their collective heads beneath a thoroughly ostrich-like platform to form the Constitutional Union Party. In an effort to sidestep the issue on everyone's mind ("Hey! Look! Isn't that a married gay couple burning a flag?!"), the CU's proudly (if vaguely) proclaimed, "The Union as it is; the Constitution as it is!". They nominated Tennessean John C. Bell on May 9th, and he and running mate Edward Everett went on to enjoy electoral success in several border states.
The Republicans held their convention in Chicago in mid-May, and nominated Abraham Lincoln (more on that in a minute), but it wasn't until June 18 that the Democrats re-convened in Baltimore. By then, the "fire-eaters" had more than doubled their numbers, and 110 of them walked out when they saw that the northern Dems had coalesced around Douglas. With the secessionists having removed themselves from the voting, the remaining delegates gave Douglas the nod, then tried to mollify the southern wing of their party by adopting a platform that favored both popular sovereignty and the Fugitive Slave Law.
Turned out that was no longer good enough. Southerners quickly threw together a nominating convention of their own in Richmond, Virginia, and appointed the somewhat-moderate John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky to run on a flame-ingesting platform that included the outright extension of slavery into the territories and the annexation of Cuba.
Weird Historical Sidenote: It's fun to think of how legacies would have been different if events had not transpired in the way they did. Had the Election of 1860 and subsequent events gone another way, for example, Breckenridge might be the capitol of Nebraska, while Lincoln would be a small-but-funky ski town in Colorado.
When Republicans Had Principles...
Abe Lincoln was not the presumptive nominee going into the cavernous wooden box (known locally as "The Wigwam") that hosted the Republican National Convention in 1860. That honor went to Bill "Higher Law" Seward, who had been derisively tagged with the nickname after he'd used the phrase in an anti-slavery speech ten years before. In a strange foreshadowing of "I invented the Internet," Seward's detractors mocked the very idea that Constitutional law should reflect a non-slavery-favoring deity, in the same way that a contemporary member of Focus on the Family might casually defecate upon the thought of God's love being universal.
Seward hadn't done himself any favors in 1858, either, when he gave a speech in Rochester that used the phrase "irrepressible conflict," and convention delegates didn't trust his later clarifications that he hadn't necessarily meant the conflict would be a bloody one. Illinois favorite son Abe Lincoln, however, had managed to do quite the opposite with his recent public speaking engagements. His debates with Steven Douglas in the 1858 Senate campaign had made him the equivalent of a prolific Front Pager, and he was still riding this wave on February 27, 1860, when he gave a speech at Cooper Union, New York:
"If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored - contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man - such as a policy of "don't care" on a question about which all true men do care - such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance - such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end date to do our duty as we understand it!"
Abraham Lincoln Online (emphasis mine - u.m.)
H.L. Mencken would later say, "The Cooper Union speech got him the Presidency," and it did indeed go a long way toward wooing supporters away from the polarizing figure cut by Lincoln's main rival. Ever since their strong showing in the Congressional races of 1858, the Republicans had known that an electoral sweep of the North was possible - basically, that the Presidency was theirs to lose. Since the Democratic smear machine had been pretty effective in Kuciniching the future purchaser of Alaska in the eyes of regular ole' Northerners, party strategists and rank-and-file delegates began to agree with the cautious slogan "Success Rather Than Seward" and threw their support behind a guy some still called "Mr. Second Best." Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot.
Wide Awake and Bushy Tailed
Like all the Presidential candidates before him, Lincoln was not the sort who stumped around giving huge speeches to wildly cheering masses. Rather, he behaved almost as an incumbent who felt that active campaigning could only present opportunities for him to make mistakes. With the vote-splitting going on in the Democratic ranks, all Lincoln had to do to win was not screw up his party's carefully-constructed coalition by somehow offending the factions their wide-pandering platform had coaxed into the Republican tent.
In that platform, they'd promised something to virtually everybody who'd ever had a semi-anti-slavery thought. The free-soil types got a promise that slavery would not be extended; the northern manufacturers would get a nice, high tariff; the anti-Know-Nothing people were told immigrants would suffer no rights abridgements; the West would get a federally-funded railroad; and farmers would get free land in the form of a homestead act. To make their positions clear to the bumper-sticker-level thinkers of the day, campaign workers came up with simple-to-comprehend slogans, which included "Vote Yourselves a Farm" and "Land for the Landless."
So Lincoln sat back and watched the Democrats implode, even as Douglas embarked on the first truly national speaking tour ever undertaken by a candidate. He spent considerable time in the South, arguing vainly for preservation of the Union, but by that point people there were calling Lincoln a "baboon" and noting the irony in Honest Abe's former and future jobs: his election, Southerners predicted, would split the Union in the same way that the 51-year old had split rails in his youth. Such views didn't gain much traction north of the Mason-Dixon line; in the end, the gangs of Republican supporters who called themselves "Wide Awakes" and similar "marching societies" like the "Rail Maulers" were far more persuasive to northern ears than any soothing words of the Little Giant's or polemics from the fire-eaters.
Though particularly active in Illinois, Wide Awake chapters appeared all over the North - a New York Herald article in September, 1860, estimated that over 400,000 were marching under the banner of the lidless eye. Members apparently provided their own uniforms, which consisted of a black cap, red cape, and six-foot pole with a whale oil lantern dangling from one end. This last bit of equipment was useful at the many nighttime marches and rallies held by the Wide Awakes, to whom the words "Nuremburg Rallies" would have meant nothing at all.
GOTV in the Old School
Their militaristic appearance did not go unnoticed by the pundits of the time; here's Lincoln dressed as one in a cartoon about the campaign:
and here's the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division description of another of these impossibly complicated political cartoons from the mid-19th century. I can't wait till Thomas Nast starts really hitting his stride
During the 1860 election campaign the "Wide Awakes," a marching club composed of young Republican men, appeared in cities throughout the North. (See no. 1860-14.) They often wore uniforms consisting of visored caps and short capes, and carried lanterns. Here Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln (left) is dressed as a "Wide-Awake," and carries a lantern and a spear-like wooden rail. He rounds the corner of the White House foiling the attempts of three other candidates to enter surreptitiously. At far right incumbent James Buchanan tries to haul John C. Breckinridge in through the window. Buchanan complains, "I'll do what I can to help you Breck, but my strength is failing and I'm afraid you'll pull me out before I can pull you in." Breckinridge despairs, ". . . I'm too weak to get up--and we shall be compelled to dissolve the Union.'" His words reflect his and Buchanan's supposed alliance with secessionist interests of the South. In the center Democrat Stephen A. Douglas tries to unlock the White House door, as Constitutional Union party candidate John Bell frets, "Hurry up Douglas! and get the door open, so that I can get in, for the watchman [i.e., Lincoln] is coming." Douglas complains that none of the three keys he holds (labeled "Regular Nomination," "Non Intervention," and "Nebraska Bill") will open the door, ". . . so I'd better be off, for old Abe is after me with a sharp stick."
The Wide Awakes do not appear to have engaged in acts of violence. This didn't prevent at least one attempt at swiftboating, however: a Texas Senator named Wigfall blamed them for a never-transpired spate of vandalism and arson. When this attempt at baiting failed, a couple of never-transpired slave revolts were cooked up, and somewhere between 30 and 100 slaves and white sympathizers were lynched in an episode that became known as the "Texas Troubles." Southerners thought they were seeing the shape of things to come when the read mission statements like this one, from the Chicago chapter:
1st. To act as a political police.
2nd. To do escort duty to all prominent Republican speakers who visit our place to address our citizens.
3rd. To attend all public meetings in a body and see that order is kept and that the speaker and meeting is not disturbed.
4th. To attend the polls and see that justice is done to every legal voter.
5th. To conduct themselves in such a manner as to induce all Republicans to join them.
6th. To be a body joined together in large numbers to work for the good of the Republican Ticket.
Their fears became self-fulfilling prophecies during the war: Wide Awakes signed up en masse when President Lincoln called up the militia in 1861. In May of that year, the St. Louis cadre of Wide Awakes were used by Union officers to arrest a group from the Missouri State Militia, who were rumored to be casting a covetous eye upon the Federal-controlled St. Louis Arsenal. The resulting riots ended only after Union troops had shot nearly three dozen people, which overnight polarized the heretofore moderately Unionist state into one that was teetering on the edge of secession.
A Bunch of Foregone Conclusions
Here's the electoral map for the 1860 Presidential Race:
The power of Northern numbers can be seen more clearly by the addition of a couple of notes: Lincoln's name did not even appear on the ballot in the Southern states, and of over 900 slaveholding counties, only two went for Abe (and both of them were in Missouri). Still, even with the overwhelming support of the North, he was definitely a minority President: 60% of the popular votes were not cast his way. Optimists trotted out some "but-at-leasts" to try to mollify the defeated Southerners (they still held a 5:4 Supreme Court majority, and there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell of any amendments banning slavery getting past the ¾s ratification requirement) before honor compelled them to make good on their publicly-sworn-to election promises and secede.
But "rule or ruin" was in the air. Four days after the "Illinois baboon" (see Historiorant) won the election, the South Carolina legislature called itself into a special session (unanimously, btw). Here's a bit of the document they drafted in Charleston in December:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.
We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
Adopted December 24, 1860
Avalon Project at Yale Law School (emphasis mine - U.M.)
In the next couple of months, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed South Carolina over the cliff; these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February, 1861, to form a government for the new Confederate States of America. Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis was chosen as the new nation's President, even as Lincoln waited to take the oath for the office to which he had been elected.
Historiorant: Simian pejoratives have been a part of the discourse in American politics for a long time now - Lincoln is a "baboon," Bush is "Chimp," and the Senator from Virginia tosses around "macaca" - and let's not forget about Howard Cosell.
Of Lame Ducks and Last Shots at Compromise
The lame duck interlude was a lot longer in those days. George Bush I and several others have found, of course, that they can spitefully create enormous problems for the next guy between early November and late January (see Operation Restore Hope), but before 1933, the date of the inauguration was not until early March. Originally set in the early spring to avoid the hassles of midwinter trips to D.C. via mud roads and horse-drawn carriage, the old date gave the enemies of an incoming President double the time to wheel their heavy artillery into place.
So it was that Lincoln found himself armed with nothing but words to stop the South from seceding before he could even take office, and he didn't even use those. President James Buchanan, nearing 70, tired of the battles, and having his ear whispered into by a cabal of Dixie Wormtongues, looked at the Constitution and saw his hands being tied by a lack of specific instruction. The cry went up from frustrated members of his own party: "Oh, but for an hour of Jackson!," but "Old Buck" almost went out of his way to prove he was no "Old Hickory." His army consisted of 15,000 troops, most of which were scattered around the West, so Buchanan adopted a stay-the-course attitude; the ever-shrinking chance at an eleventh-hour fix would fall under Lincoln's purview anyway, so why not kick the can down the road? In the meantime, Abe wrote letters trying to reassure his Southern colleagues:
TO A. H. STEPHENS. (For your own eye only)
SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS, DECEMBER 22, 1860
HON. ALEXANDER STEVENS
MY DEAR SIR:--Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me. Do the people of the South really entertain fear that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose, is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.
Yours very truly,
A late-breaking compromise was indeed put forth late in the game. J.H. Crittenden, heir to the Kentucky legacy of Henry Clay, offered up the following as a potential solution: slavery would be verboten north of the old 36'30" line, the one that had for 34 years kept the peace established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. South of the that border (basically, Oklahoma, which wouldn't be stolen back from the Indians for another 20 years; the New Mexico Territory, which consisted of modern-day Arizona, too; and the hint of places even further south, like maybe Cuba) the question would be left up to popular sovereignty.
Lincoln, who had done a "read my lips" thing with the idea of extending slavery into any territory, flat-out rejected the proposal. At one point, he stated that Crittenden's compromise "would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and state owing a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego." The South, weary of the bickering and accentuating their role as the victim in this unfolding drama, rejected it, too, relying on the old arguments about freedom of choice and the limits of the Constitution. To them, it seemed that every time they entered into negotiations with Northern free-soilers and abolitionists (and the politicians who represented them), the South came out on the screwed end of the bargain, and any concessions that were made were made by them. In the end, Jefferson Davis expressed Southern sentiment best when he told one of the early convocations of his Congress, "All we ask is to be let alone."
President-Elect Lincoln, as seen on the cover of Harper's Magazine
So What Started the Civil War?
To understand Southern secessionism, it helps to take a look at the world as it existed when Honest Abe took the Oath of Office before half a country. Nationalism was on the rise in Italy, Germany, Poland, and elsewhere, and its effects were felt strongly in the South, which had come to regard itself as less a section and more a sub-nation of the United States. They held themselves to be the true heirs to the Constitution established by Southerners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, and came to see the North as a bunch of aggressive bullies, all too willing to make judgments about the ways of life of other people according the strict confines of their own, possibly hypocritical, sense of morality.
And don't think that people weren't looking at the bottom line in all this, either. Northern institutions held the notes on a lot of loans to Southern interests, and some in the Confederate government were gambling that bankers and industrialists would persuade Lincoln that large-scale loan repudiation would be a bad thing. The stated unwillingness of many Northerners to quash the rebellion by force led the more fire-eating types of Southerners to conclude that as a nation of shopkeepers and money-changers, the men of the North were simply too wimpy to take on the self-styled ruggedness of an army of Southern Men.
The world's superpowers watched with yawning interest; they couldn't really lose by following the Prime Directive and not interfering. If the South won independence, at least the new nation would install low tariffs to get the cotton moving, and more globalized trade was sure to make foreigners more competitive with Northern manufactured goods in the American markets in general. Besides, France was casting greedy, imperialist eyes upon the United States' southern neighbor, and would not consider themselves put out if the Americans were distracted for a while, and British merchants didn't much like Yankee traders, anyway - they wouldn't shed a tear if an unfortunate war happened to clip their wings a bit. In fact, at least a few Brits saw the whole affair as something of a come-uppence for their erstwhile rebellious colonies. From the London Times, November 7, 1861:
"The contest is really for empire on the side of the North, and for independence on that of the South, and in this respect we recognize an exact analogy between the North and Government of George III, and the South and the Thirteen Revolted Provinces."
Kennedy, et al, The American Pageant, Houghton/Mifflin, NY, 2002. pg. 431
Historiorant: "Provinces." Heh.
So that was that, as far as the Confederates were concerned. Thirteen Revolted Provinces had voluntarily joined in a Union together, and now seven (later eleven) were voluntarily withdrawing from it. Think of it as a no-fault divorce, one in which shares of the national debt and other messiness could be worked out later.
Of course, that messiness was pretty messy, and no one was quite sure how to confront it: Without being part of the same country as the South, the North was free to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law, which would move the goalposts of the Underground Railroad from the Canadian border to the Ohio River - to say nothing of the unresolved issues of how much Western land would be allotted (remembering that much of the army that fought in Mexico in the 1840's was composed of Southerners), and how to administer jointly-held territories. Providing a backdrop for the debate was the matter of two federal forts that were located in Confederate territory, but were obstinately flying the Stars and Stripes; problem was that in early April, 1861, one of them - the strategically-located Fort Sumter, just offshore of that hotbed of fire-eating sentiment, Charleston, S.C. - was running out of food...
Okay, this seriously is a record: an entire diary about a single year (give or take a few weeks). If I'm not careful, they're going to send me off to the Obsessive-Historian Treatment Facility again...
Thing is, the Election of 1860 was important, perhaps the most important election we as a nation have ever faced. And people knew it, and they rose to the occasion. The phenomenal growth of the Republican movement, the spontaneous emergence of the Wide Awakes, and the commitment by Stevens, Breckenridge, and even old, gentlemanly Bell to work within the rules is difficult for swanky, apolitical contemprarians to understand. Participation in the political process (or at least the discourse) was the norm for everyday Americans in the 19th century; people were not considered "cool" for being oblivious to the events shaping their times. Want proof? Here's a chart:
Granted, the pool of eligible voters was limited due to the exclusion of African-Americans, Indians, and women, but percentages are percentages - and 80 people out of a hundred casting ballots is a lot better than the high 50s that we modern types can claim, regardless of how many sets of 100 one counts.
Kinda makes you wanna grab a six-foot stick with a whale oil lantern on the end, and run out it into the street, don't it?
Cross-posted at Progressive Historians